On national stage, local kid steals show

Among the 52 men and women on the U.S. Olympic swim team, there are distinct camps. From the Bay area to Phoenix to Austin, Texas, there are clubs and colleges that attract premier talent and provide a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere.

Then there's the case of Michael Phelps, the 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge who, in effect, has trained in a vacuum at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.The 2000 U.S. trials concluded an eight-day run at the IU Natatorium last night. Dietary supplements, swimsuits and race were issues on the cusp of a new millennium, but on the old-fashioned, Olympic moment meter, nothing beat the tale of the youngest male to make the U.S. swim team since 1932.

Phelps expected to be back in the North Baltimore Aquatic Club pool this morning, being put through his paces by coach Bob Bowman. Bowman trains other area high school students who will get college scholarships, but he and Phelps have a 1-on-1 relationship, which is rare among the qualifiers here.

Four years ago, the U.S. women's team included two youngsters from the NBAC - Beth Botsford and Whitney Metzler. NBAC founder Murray Stephens said this is the first Olympic men's team to include two Baltimoreans, and Tommy Hannan followed a more typical route to the team than Phelps.

Hannan, who gained an Olympic berth in the 100-meter butterfly Tuesday night, showed great potential with the Eagle Swim Team and at Mount St. Joseph High. He blossomed at the University of Texas, where coach Eddie Reese also developed U.S. teammates Scott Goldblatt, Jamie Rauch and Neil Walker.

On the women's side, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres have defied their supposedly advanced ages at Stanford Swimming, the post-grad club under the direction of Cardinal coach Richard Quick. Misty Hyman and Gabrielle Rose were also developed by Quick, who will be the head coach of the U.S. women's team.

Freestyle sprinters Gary Hall and Anthony Ervin, the first person of African-American descent to make the Olympic team, got faster by training together in Phoenix.

The stars from the Phoenix and Stanford camps take enormous amounts of dietary supplements, to keep pace with foreign stars that they imply are going faster because of illegal substances.

At 27, Thompson might match track and field star Marion Jones' much-hyped "Drive for Five" gold medals. Torres, 33, will be the first American to swim in four Olympics. After decades in which the women's team was dominated by high-schoolers, the average age of the men's team will be only slightly older.

"It's accepted more by society and family that your career isn't over in high school," Quick said of women setting American records that used to be dominated by girls. "This is a natural evolution. Thirty years ago, your career was over when you were 16 or 17. Then college swimming became prominent, and you got a few more years.

"Now, you've got the opportunity for the very elite athlete to make a living, not by the standards of the NFL or the NBA, but up to standards of the most 22- and 23-year-olds. As long as the flame of desire burns bright, a woman can continue to improve."

While the women's team got older, Phelps helped drop the average age of the men's team. Whereas Tom Malchow, the world-record holder in the 200 butterfly, was the youngest member of the men's team in 1996 as a 19-year-old, Phelps led a youth movement that placed at least eight teen-agers on the men's team that will go to Sydney.

"We certainly have some phenoms here," Olympic men's coach Mark Schubert said. "I guess you could call that a surprise, but you always see surprises here."

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